April 6, 2014

Kronos @ the Hertz ~ Happy Birthday World War I

photo by Styrous®

I inadvertently began the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of World War I this evening. Yep, it was a hundred years ago this year that the 'Great War' began with the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo. The incident precipitated Austria-Hungary's declaration of war against Serbia. The result of the assassination: the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Allies of World War I (countries allied with Serbia) declared war on each other, igniting the First World War

18 December 1863 – 28 June 1914
photo published in:
The War of the Nations (New York)
December 31, 1919
Newspaper Pictorials
The war of the nations : 
portfolio in rotogravure etchings : 
compiled from the Mid-week pictorial, 
New York :
New York Times, Co., 1919

This is a hell of a way to start a music article but the performance by the Kronos Quartet at the Hertz Hall in Berkeley centered around this event with the World Premier of Beyond Zero by Serbian-born composer, Aleksandra Vrebalov, who was there in attendance.

photo by Sasha Jancic

I'd had no thought about World War One or the Kronos Quartet and had never heard of Vrebalov but the day before the concert I was at the wedding celebration of friends when Shelly Gardner said she had a ticket for a concert but couldn't go and asked, did I want it? The Kronos? Of course I did! 

It turns out the concert was everything and far more than I had expected. The media involved in the performance was right up my alley; it utilized vintage 78 recordings of the period. Scratches, pops and tinny sounding, they were fantastic. There were recordings of opera, rally and patriotic songs, and many others. The sound recordings were used between and, at one point, accompanied by the Quartet.

The program was a series of short compositions, many no more than a minute, a few a mere 10 seconds or so, performed without intermission. That's a good thing as it would have disrupted the flow of the work. There was no applause until the end of the entire program, another good thing.

Music in the program consisted of a Byzantine chant 
Three pieces for String Orchestra by Igor Stravinsky
Last Kind Words by the blues singer Geeshie Wiley, arranged by trombonist Jacob Garchik
EviƧ Taksim by Tanburi Cemil Bay, arranged by Stephen Prutsman 
Trois Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis by Maurice Ravel, arranged by J. J. Hollingsworth, of soundSFound
Six Bagatelles by Anton Webern, arranged by Jacob Garchik
They Are There! Fighting for the People's New Free World by Charles Ives and
Nunc Dimittis from All-Night Vigil by Serge Rachmaninoff, arranged by Kronos

The original version of Last Kind Words by Geeshie Wiley is one of the most unique blues songs ever written. It's modulations are exquisite. It was recorded in 1929 with guitar played by Elvie Thomas. Geeshie was born in Natchez, Mississippi, and during the 20's she worked at a fairground in Jackson, Mississippi. She was married to Casey Bill Weldon who was Memphis Minnie's ex husband. The nickname "Geeshie" was commonly given to people from around coastal South Carolina and Georgia and is another name for the Gullah ethnic group in that region. Be sure to check out the music video (link below).

During the Ives work, They Are There!, the Kronos performed with the recording (actually sung by Ives who also played piano). Ives was off-key, dissonant at times and hilarious! The song was recorded at the Mary Howard Studio in New York City on 24 April 1943.

The last and longest work was Beyond Zero: 1914 - 1918 in which the Quartet played during the running of a film by Bill Morrison. The film consisted of reels of decaying nitrate film from the World War I period. They were processed to enhance the decay and at times simulated the effect of projector burn-out.

Beyond Zero: 1914-1918
video by Bill Morrison

The old footage from the period (silent film, of course, sound film had not been invented yet) varied from a huge steamship with thousands of men jamming the decks, men marching off to war, men in training exercises, men barb-wiring the battle field, tanks and guns firing on cities and villages and the aftermath of war. The whole while I kept wondering how many of the young men in the films survived the cataclysm (from the Greek, kataklysmos, to 'wash down' (kluzein "wash" + kata "down"). I use the word cataclysm because it did indeed wipe away an entire world and way of life. The world was changed forever by it.

The finale of the film was accompanied by the striking of two old Vietnamese artillery shells which, when struck, had the beautiful but sombre sound of brass bells or gongs.

It is ironic that afterwards, World War I was considered to be the war to end all wars. They had no inkling of the horrors the future held in store for mankind. Also ironic is the fact that here the politicians are again repeating the same stupid actions. When will they ever learn?  

Net links:

Bill Morrison videos on YouTube:

Light Is Calling (music by Michael Gordon)
Decasia (music by Michael Gordon)
My everlasting thanks for an incredible evening of stunning music to the Kronos Quartet, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Bill Morrison but especially to Shelly Gardner.

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